While there is no such thing as an effortless bonsai, we are making progress.
The rules have changed since bonsai revolutionary Kenji Koyahashi invented keshiki bonsai. Tokyo-based Koyahashi, who teaches workshops for beginners at his shop, loosened strict dictates. I got a copy of his book, Keshiki Bonsai, ($17.05 from Amazon) and learned he encourages bonsai newbies to select plants and containers according to their personalities. Anything from soup cans to a tea cup can be repurposed as a planter.
With a modern, relaxed attitude, planting a bonsai is (almost) as easy as potting a houseplant. Read on to try this DIY and find out for yourself:
Photography by Cheryl Locke.
Above: In Koyahashi’s world, everyday plants–shrubs, seedlings, tiny trees at your local nursery–can become bonsai. (Not that there’s anything wrong with a stately Japanese black pine.)
Above: And when it comes to sourcing a pot, you don’t have to use a container in the imperial style, unless you live in a palace. Find a pot that suits your home or your personal taste. In a pinch, something from your cupboard, like a spare ramekin, works well. With a drill and a diamond tile bit, you can turn any ceramic bowl into a planter.
- Bonsai Soil Requirements: How To Mix Soil For Bonsai Trees
- Bonsai Soil Requirements
- What is Bonsai Soil Made Up Of?
- Bonsai Soil Information
- How to Make Bonsai Soil
- Bonsai soil
- Bonsai substrates
- Recommended Bonsai soil mixtures
- Bonsai Potting Mediums / Soils
- Overview of Potting Mediums
- Bonsai Soil
- Safety goggles
- Diamond Tile 1/4 INCH Drill Bit; $12.79 at Hardware Distributors
- Screen filter such as Soil Bug Keeper Stopper Screens ($2 at Target)
- Bonsai Shears ($42.90 at Hida Tool)
- Bonsai wire ($6.90 at Hida Tool)
- Volcanic rock
- Master’s Pride Potting Soil; $10.89 at Harmony Farm
- Chopstick or spoon (to tamp soil and adjust plants)
- Planter and plant of choice
Above: One challenge to growing a traditional bonsai is you need to find a sapling with the potential to train into a majestic tree in miniature. Skip that.
Instead, use your imagination. Start with a shrub that already looks like a tree or grassy knoll. I went to my local nursery and headed to the California natives section, where I found Euphorbia balsamifera, the little guy shown above at center left, and a drought tolerant cushion bush (left, back). I also picked up a hebe ‘Emerald Gem’ (which reminded me of a mini spruce) in the shrub section. As for the moss, it is not actually moss but Austrailian Astroturf and baby tears. Because I’ll be placing my bonsai on a sunny ledge, I need companions that like sun to partial shade.
Above: Next, create a drainage hole. Flip your container upside down, then spritz the surface with water to keep the area cool. Using your drill at its highest speed (make sure you are wearing goggles), create a groove at a 45-degree angle. Then drill (holding the drill firmly so the bit goes in straight instead of at an angle) until you create a drainage hole.
Go slow, and don’t press hard. You don’t want to crack your container.
Above: Keep soil from draining and pests from crawling in with a screen mesh, secured with a tiny bit of wire.
Bonsai Soil Requirements: How To Mix Soil For Bonsai Trees
Bonsai may seem like just plants in pots, but they are so much more than that. The practice itself is more of an art that can take decades to perfect. While not the most interesting aspect of bonsai, growing, soil for bonsai is an essential element. What is bonsai soil made up of? As with the art itself, bonsai soil requirements are exacting and very specific. The following article contains bonsai soil information on how to make your own bonsai soil.
Bonsai Soil Requirements
Soil for bonsai has to meet three different criteria: It must allow for good water retention, drainage, and aeration. The soil must be able to hold and retain sufficient moisture yet water must be able to drain immediately from the pot. The ingredients for bonsai soil must be large enough to allow for air pockets to provide oxygen to the roots and to microbacteria.
What is Bonsai Soil Made Up Of?
The common ingredients in bonsai soil are akadama, pumice, lava rock, organic potting compost and fine gravel. Ideal bonsai soil should be pH neutral, neither acidic nor basic. A pH between 6.5-7.5 is ideal.
Bonsai Soil Information
Akadama is a hard-baked Japanese clay that is available online. After about two years, akadama begins to break down, which reduces aeration. This means that repotting is needed or that akadama should be used in a mix with well-draining soil components. Akadama is a bit costly, so it is sometimes substituted with fired/baked clays that are more readily available at garden centers. Even kitty litter is sometimes used in lieu of akadama.
Pumice is a soft volcanic product that absorbs both water and nutrients well. Lava rock helps retain water and adds structure to the bonsai soil.
Organic potting compost may be peat moss, perlite and sand. It doesn’t aerate or drain well and retains water but as a part of the soil mix it works. One of the more common options for organic compost for use in bonsai soil is pine bark because it breaks down slower than other types of compost; rapid breakdown can impede drainage.
Fine gravel or grit help with drainage and aeration and is used as the bottom layer of a bonsai pot. Some people do not use this anymore and just use a mix of akadama, pumice and lava rock.
How to Make Bonsai Soil
The exact mix of bonsai soil is dependent on what type of tree species is being used. That said, here are guidelines for two types of soil, one for deciduous trees and one for conifers.
- For deciduous bonsai trees, use 50% akadama, 25% pumice and 25% lava rock.
- For conifers, use 33% akadama, 33% pumice and 33% lava rock.
Depending upon your region’s conditions, you may need to amend the soil differently. That is, if you do not check on the trees a couple of times a day, add more akadame or organic potting compost to the mix to increase water retention. If the climate in your area is wet, add more lava rock or grit to improve drainage.
Sift the dust from the akadama to improve aeration and drainage of the soil. Add the pumice to the mix. Then add the lava rock. If the lava rock is dusty, sift it as well prior to adding it to the mix.
If water absorption is important, add organic soil into the mix. This isn’t always necessary, however. Usually, the above mix of akadama, pumice and lava rock is sufficient.
Sometimes, getting soil for bonsai just right takes a little trial and error. Start with the basic recipe and keep a close eye on the tree. If drainage or aeration needs improvement, re-amend the soil.
Using the right soil mixture for your Bonsai trees is crucial. Soil is important to supply your trees with nutrients, but it also needs to drain properly, provide enough aeration and retain water. Though most (online) Bonsai shops sell ready-mixed soils, doing this yourself will save money and enables you to adjust mixtures per tree-species.
The quality of soil used directly affects the health and vigor of your tree. It is our experience that unhealthy trees, that lack vigor, are very often planted in a poor (often organic) Bonsai soil. Or worse; planted in normal garden soil. Such soil easily hardens when it gets dry, which give no advantage to the growth of Bonsai, in fact, it is very harmful to the tree.
There are a number of qualities that are required in a good soil mix
- Good water-retention
The soil needs to be able to hold and retain sufficient quantities of water to supply moisture to the Bonsai between each watering.
- Good drainage
Excess water must be able to drain immediately from the pot. Soils lacking good drainage are too water retentive, lack aeration and are liable to a build up of salts. Too much water-retention will also cause the roots to rot, killing the tree.
- Good aeration
The particles used in a Bonsai mix should be of sufficient size to allow tiny gaps or air pockets between each particle. Beside the need of oxygen for the roots, it is also important to let the good bacteria and mycorrhizae intact, so the processing of food will take place before being absorbed by the root-hairs and send to the leaves for photosynthesis.
A particle-based, well-structured inorganic soil allows fast drainage of water and allows fresh air to continually enter the soil. A compacted organic soil that lacks any structure also lacks aeration and drainage and this can lead to ill health in the roots and tree and root rot.
Video: Bonsai substrate
Organic or Inorganic Soils
Soil mixes are described as being either organic or inorganic. Dead plant matters such as peat or leaf-litter or bark are described as being organic soil components. The (potential) problem with organic soil components is that over time organic matter will break down and reduce drainage – though at varying speed (pine bark is probably the preferred option for most mixtures). Most potting composts, once completely dry, absorb water very poorly. This is one of the biggest problems for cheap indoor Bonsai trees purchased at garden centers; you think you watered the tree but in fact the water runs past the soil into the bottom of the pot!
Inorganic soil components contain little to no organic matter such, for example volcanic lava, calcite (baked) or fired clays. They absorb less nutrients and water than organic soils, but are great for drainage and aeration.
The most common components for Bonsai soil mixtures are Akadama, Pumice, Lava rock, organic potting compost and fine gravel (grit).
From left to right; organic potting compost, Akadama, Pumice and lava rock.
Akadama is hard-baked Japanese clay, specifically produced for Bonsai purposes and available at all (online) Bonsai shops. It needs to be sifted before use. Keep in mind that after about two years akadama starts to break down, reducing aeration to a certain extent. This means that regular repotting is required, or that Akadama should be used in a mix with well-draining soil components. Akadama is rather expensive and is therefore sometimes substituted with similar fired/baked clays that are easily available in any garden center. Even cat-litter can be used as a substitute, check our Bonsai forum which brand is recommended in your country.
Pumice is a soft volcanic product, which can absorb water and nutrients quite well. When used in a Bonsai soil mix, it helps to retain water and it aids the roots to ramify very well.
Lava rock retains water and adds good structure when part of a Bonsai substrate. Roots can’t grow into Lava rock.
Organic potting compost includes peat moss, perlite and sand. It has several disadvantages (it retains much water and doesn’t aerate/drain very well), but as part of a mixture it can be used perfectly well.
Fine gravel / grit helps to create a well draining and aerated Bonsai soil. It is also used as a bottom layer in Bonsai pots to enhance drainage a bit further. Most experts don’t use this anymore, and stick to a mix of Akadama, Pumice and Lava rock.
Recommended Bonsai soil mixtures
Different tree-species demand different soil-mixtures, so make sure to check our tree-species Bonsai guide to find the optimum mixture for individual trees. We can however describe two main mixtures, one for deciduous trees and one for coniferous trees. Both mixtures consist of Akadama (the water retention component), Pumice (good for structure of the substrate) and Lava rock (to provide the mixture with aeration and drainage).
Note that both mixtures can, and should, be adapted to your local circumstances. If you do not have time to check on your trees twice a day, add more Akadama (or even add organic potting compost) to your mix, to increase its water retention qualities. If you live in a wet climate, add more lava rock (or even grit) to enhance the draining qualities of your mixture.
Deciduous tree Bonsai soil
25% Lava rock
Coniferous / Pine Bonsai soil
33% Lava rock
Bonsai Potting Mediums / Soils
Overview of Potting Mediums
Bonsai Potting Soil, Dirt, and all the other nouns that can tell us that this is the stuff that we put into the Bonsai Pot to hold the Bonsai in place and to be a holding agent for the necessary water and nutrients so necessary for the health and well being of your Bonsai.
In this arena we have:
Complete Bonsai Potting Soils which include Akadama, Fujiyama Potting Medium, and Kanuma
Additives or components to make a complete potting medium
- Calcined Clay
- Peat Moss
- Pine Bark
- River Sands
And then we have a selection of items that are normally used as a decoration by themselves or sprinkled on top of a Bonsai Tree soil mix to cover over whatever you feel that is less pretty called Top Dressings.
Now to make it a little more complicated you can also use some of the above items interchangeably from one category to the next. Like using Akadama as a top dressing over the Fujiyama Potting Medium. It looks great!
Within each category we will explain in detail the reasons you use this or that. As a beginner/novice/just new to the hobby, you should pick a complete potting medium such as Fujiyama Potting Medium. It’s like going to the grocery store and buying a store bought cake. It’s complete and finished and until you get your hands dirty in making your own recipe of Bonsai Tree soil mix with components like peat moss, pine bark and calcined clay this is the best first choice.
For those with some experience, try different amounts of each ingredient to formulate your desired Bonsai Tree soil mix.
It’s important to remember, however, that Bonsai potting soil has an entirely different texture than does store bought potting soil.
The preparation of a workable potting mixture in which to grow bonsai is certainly not the most exciting or interesting aspect of the art, but it is just as certainly one of the most critical. Because the growing space in a bonsai container is limited, it is important that soil placed into it should perform perfectly. The health and well-being of the tree are dependent on it.
The right recipe for bonsai soil is like the right recipe for spaghetti sauce. Everyone has a slightly different idea of what should go into it, but the basic ingredients generally remain the same. Bonsai people will argue for hours about which ingredients will work the best. The actual fact is that most thoughtfully prepared mixtures perform fine so long as they provide for excellent aeration and drainage. The objective here is not to describe an exact mixture for making bonsai soil, but rather to discuss the principals and elements necessary for an effective potting mix so that readers can construct a workable medium tailored to their own individual needs and growing conditions.
Bonsaists spend a great deal of time sifting various soil components through a series of sieves. The objective is to make all components approximately the same size. In the process not only are larger unusable chunks eliminated, but also fine dust, which would plug up air holes between soil particles and inhibit proper drainage. Screening and mixing soil is mostly common sense and not rocket science. This is an important point to remember, because it is possible to get so involved in the creation of the world’s most perfect soil mixture that one can lose site of the principal objective… perfect drainage and aeration.
The actual components and the amount of each component used in any soil mixture can vary from region to region and garden to garden. Exactly what should be included in the final preparation is an individual matter. Components included in the mixture will be determined by several factors. First, what types of materials are readily and economically available in the grower’s immediate area. Second, what are the demands made by the local growing conditions, i.e., do you live in a desert or a rain forest? Third, How large is the container into which the tree is to be planted, i.e., shallow pots will dry out more quickly than deeper pots. Finally, what is the moisture and pH preference (acid or base) of the particular variety of bonsai being planted into the soil mix.
Any usable soil mixture must always meet two basic requirements if it is to have any hope of success. First, the mixture must drain water quickly. This is generally referred to as “perfect drainage.” Second, it should be essentially pH neutral… that is, neither wildly acidic or basic. A pH value somewhere in the 6.5 to 7.5 range seems best. There are all kinds of pH testing kits available on the market. It is a good idea to get one and use it to test soils. Local agriculture extension agents also offer soil testing services for a modest fee.
“That Gravel You Plant Your Trees In”
The appearance of a correctly prepared bonsai potting mix is so radically different from the heavy black dirt the public usually purchases for their general potting needs that newcomers often describe bonsai potting mixes as “that gravel you plant your trees in.” They are not far wrong in this assessment, but what they fail to realize is that there are some very specific reasons for preparing the soils in the manner we do and some very specific advantages to be gained by doing so.
Why do bonsaists insist on a very loose well draining soil mixture? The answer is simple. When god created little green apple trees… and all other plants for that matter… his plan was to grow them in the ground. It was man who devised the idea of putting them in containers. Horticulturally speaking, our bonsai are being asked to grow roots in what is essentially an unnatural environment… the small confines of a bonsai pot. Even though the container may suit our artistic vision for a bonsai masterpiece, it is an alien environment insofar as the tree’s root system is concerned.
When a loose, well draining soil mixture is used, it creates an environment into which the tree can easily grow new roots. Vigorous root growth translates into vigorous top growth and overall plant health. Because the growing space in a pot is limited, bonsai practitioners attempt to gradually trim away heavier roots, thereby making more space for the growth of fine feeder roots which are better able to nourish the plant. It is the development of these fine, hair like, feeder roots that a good bonsai mixture is designed to encourage.
This concept is fairly simple to understand. As proof, consider the kind of potting mixture which plant propagators use for the rooting of cuttings. Normally it is coarse sand or perlite. Both of these substances have a uniform particle size, drain water exceptionally well and have no fine dust which would inhibit air movement through the soil (aeration).
These are exactly the same characteristics on which a workable bonsai mix is based. The actual ingredients from which you assemble your soil mixture are certainly important, but regardless of the components,… if the final mixture does not have good drainage and aeration, it is wrong.
There Is No Soil in Bonsai Soil
The term “soil” is really somewhat of a misnomer. The components normally used to create a good potting mixture are, in fact, soilless. They are designed to provide an ideal environment for root growth. Unfortunately, in creating this “perfect” environment we also create a few problems for ourselves.
Obviously the soil mix described thus far will dry out much quicker than the sticky black potting soil most people are familiar with. Most of the components used are aggregate (rock of one kind or another). This means there are virtually no nutrients in a properly prepared bonsai potting mix and that the container will hold onto only enough moisture for its immediate needs. Both of these aspects are unfortunate, but necessary if any soil mixture is to be successful.
Watering and fertilizing then become critical elements for the development of healthy bonsai. Since the mix used will hold neither nutrient or moisture, a failure to establish regular, effective programs for both will quickly cause trees to weaken and die. Likewise, an effective fertilization and watering regime will cause a tree planted in a good bonsai mix to respond with a growth and vigor that could not be achieved using any other kind of potting preparation. Water and fertilization are subjects for another article. Suffice to say that both must be done on a very regular basis and never, ever, neglected.
Bonsai Soil Composition
A good general bonsai mixture should be composed of about 75 per cent inert aggregate and 25 per cent organic materials. What aggregate and what organic material becomes a matter of personal choice and often considerable debate between bonsai people. The best suggestion is to use materials that are available in the local area. This will allow the grower to keep costs down and hassle to a minimum.
Aggregate is the largest and most critical component and will comprise an average of 65 to 85 percent of the total soil mass. Aggregate is the best term to describe these substances, although, rock, gravel and drainage material will also work. The aggregate portion of the mix may be composed of just a single component or a combination of components. The only requirement is that the aggregates used have a uniform particle size and a neutral pH value. It is not necessary to ship such materials across the country or around the world in order to obtain a workable potting mix. In all probability, they will be easily available locally.
As one travels and meets bonsai growers in other locations they quickly discover that soil components change by region based upon what is available in a particular location. People in Florida use a lot of sand in their soil mixtures. That’s because they have got a lot of it. Colorado bonsaists can obtain all the decomposed granite they want from the sides of their mountains. In Hawaii the primary inert component in a soil mixture is… you guessed it… crushed lava rock. The inert ingredient(s) can vary greatly…. but generally fall into three categories: hardened clays, expanded aggregates and non-porous aggregates.
Akadama and Kanuma are particles of pelletized clay which the Japanese use extensively for potting their bonsai. They are virtually unobtainable in the west except from a retail bonsai dealer. There are several different grades and sizes of these clays.. Some have been fired until they are rock hard like the turface described below. Other grades are simply small pellets of clay that will break down when they become wet. In either case the particles will absorb water and nutrient and release it back to the plant gradually. Purists in the art of bonsai will tell you that growing trees in kanuma and akadama is the only way to go and that if you are not using this product, you are not really doing right by your trees.
While certain types of trees like to have a little clay included in the soil mixture (notably wisteria and azalea), The rush to include akadama and kanuma in western potting mixtures is somewhat of a fad. Its popularity is based on the belief among many western practitioners that if it comes from Japan it has got to be better than anything available in the west, i.e., Japanese bonsai are very beautiful. Therefore Japanese soil ingredients must be the answer to growing beautiful trees.
The inclusion of minor amounts of Japanese clays in a working bonsai mixture may improve and will certainly not impair the mixture’s usefulness, but its overall benefit is a matter of debate. In any case, the importation of pelletized clay from half way around the world as the primary ingredient for a soil mix will quickly prove to be a very costly business. If you have a lot of trees, you may want to consider less expensive domestic materials.
Turface looks a lot like akadama, but is not. This product is used for the aeration of grass on golf courses and baseball diamonds. Turface is usually only available in fifty pound bags, from turf supply and lawn maintenance companies and generally not available at local garden stores. Essentially it is clay that has been heated in a fire until it becomes hard and will not break down and turn into mud with prolonged exposure to water. If you were to take a terra cotta pot and crush it up, you would have essentially the same thing. Each particle is full of tiny holes which absorb water and release it back to the plant slowly. Its pH is relatively neutral. Proper sifting of a 50 pound bag will net you about 25 pounds of usable material for bonsai. You can use the rest to aerate your garden.
Although “turface” is the term generally used to describe fired clay, it is, in fact, a brand name. Other manufactures market similar products under the names such as Soilmaster or Terragreen. There may be others. Note, however, certain brands of cat litter and oil absorbent products on the market contain fired clay as their prime ingredient. You should be extremely cautious about using such products because they often contain chemical additives which would be detrimental when used in a soil mix.
Haydite is another brand name and is the rock equivalent of turface. Similar products may be found marketed under names such as permatil and staylite. They come in different colors (brown or gray usually) depending upon where it was made and what kind of stone was used. Historically, expanded rock is the primary ingredient used in the manufacture of concrete blocks to make them lighter. Only in recent years has this product’s value as a soil amendment been discovered. Haydite, which is brown in color is expanded shale. Permatil is grey and made from slate. The term “expanded” means it has been heated to over 2000 degrees which causes these two types of porous rock to become even more porous. Like the turface it is full of tiny holes which absorb water and release it back to the plant. Some research even indicates haydite releases water more readily than does the turface and is less inclined to accumulate salts from watering. Depending upon where it comes from, expanded rock may be slightly pH acidic. This can be easily corrected by adding a little horticultural lime to the soil mix.
Yet another expanded stone product is lava rock. This is usually available in garden centers and is red in color. Bonsai people are fond of using lava rock as a finishing dressing on the surface of the pot, but it can also make an excellent primary aggregate component for any mix. Like expanded shale and slate, lava rock is full of tiny holes which absorb water and then release it back to the plant slowly. Unlike expanded shale and slate, it was the volcano gods who did the expanding and not man.
We’ve used this substance for years and swear by it. You can purchase it by the bag from your local feed or farm supply store already separated into the correct grades. Poultry grit is composed of fragments of crushed granite which farmers feed to their chickens to help them grind up corn. (As it turns out, chickens have no teeth). The particle size in any given bag will vary depending upon whether it is intended for baby chicks or full grown turkeys. Unlike clay or expanded rock, crushed granite is dense and solid. It absorbs no water, is completely inert, neutral in pH and has sharp edges on each particle which cause fine feeder roots to split and divide when they hit them. A word of caution. Make sure the chicken grit you are buying is granite. We have found certain brands that are composed totally of crushed sea shells, which might be fine for the chickens, but would be highly pH basic and disastrous in a bonsai soil. We have also seen chicken grit manufactured from pink granite with white flecks. It works fine mechanically, but like perlite, is not aesthetically pleasing on the surface of a pot. If you can’t find poultry grit, check with your local stone quarry. You may be able to buy the same product, but will have to sift it through several screens to obtain the necessary particle sizes.
This is the substance most often included in a good bonsai soil mix. It is basically river rock and is the ingredient usually mixed with cement to make concrete. You can find it “down by the riverside;” or at your local construction site; or at the local concrete manufacturer; or in bags from building supply centers. (If you purchase it by the bag make sure it is all rock and not a rock/cement mix which would only compound drainage problems the first time you watered.) Seriously,… river rock, a.k.a. – construction gravel, is one of the best products you can include in your soil mixture. It is non absorbent, dense, inert, pH neutral and readily available in most areas. Don’t get it confused with the children’s play sand and the blasting sand also available in home centers.
There are some bonsai growers who believe a good bonsai soil mix need not contain any organic ingredients whatsoever. They maintain that drainage and aeration are the two single most important aspects of a good bonsai mix and that you, as the grower, have the responsibility for supplying all the nutrients and moisture your bonsai may require.
This is absolutely true, but it sounds a little too much like hydroponics for most people. Although there is some merit to the argument, the preference among most bonsai growers is to include something in the finished soil mixture which, at least, looks a little like “dirt.” The organic component in an average soil mix is usually about 20 to 30 percent of the total volume. This organic will decompose gradually and in so doing, release nutrient for the tree’s use. In addition, it will retain a bit more moisture than the inert components and will also absorb more fertilizer.
The exact nature of the organic component used is largely up to the grower. One of the most popular is pine bark because it is inexpensive and easily obtainable in fifty pound bags from local garden centers. One bag yields about 25 pounds of usable material after it has been passed through three sets of screens. Some people use oak leaf mulch, some garden soil, old compost, or even decomposed sawdust. The list can get quite long. Remember that the organic component is simply a vehicle for dispersing nutrient and moisture and that it should be pH neutral. You should also avoid using anything that might be too “hot” (too much nutrient) for tender young roots, such as cow manure or fresh compost.
Tailor Mix To Your Needs
All components in a bonsai soil MUST be screened. You will need a variety of screens ranging from one half inch mesh through one sixteenth. You can purchase ready made bonsai sieve sets from local bonsai suppliers or make your own by visiting the hardware cloth section of the local building supply store. For a normal sized bonsai container (about 11” wide by 1 or 2 “ deep) the components described above should be screened to provide particles which are about a quarter inch or less in diameter. Mixes for smaller bonsai (shohin and mame class plants) should be screened to produce particles which are between one eighth and one sixteenth inch. In both cases, fine dust particles should be removed.
A little common sense is the best approach when deciding what soil mixture is right for you. A recipe which is composed of three quarters aggregate and one quarter organic materials will produce a mix which is good for all evergreens and most types of deciduous bonsai. However, quite often varying the components and ratios in a mix to accommodate particular varieties of plants can be a good idea. Likewise, if the plant prefers a damp soil mixture (larches and bald cypress) more organic material, which holds more water, may be called for. If the tree prefers a dry soil, (pine, ficus, juniper) more aggregate may be advisable.
Take a look at the growing conditions in your back yard. If you have a shaded location you may have problems with pots staying continually wet. In such a case it might be wise to increase the aggregate content of your soil mix and thus cause it to dry out more quickly. On the other hand, if your yard is exceptionally sunny, you might want to add more organic ingredients which will cause the soil to retain more moisture.
Adding Something Extra
Above and beyond the materials already discussed, there are numerous other additions which some growers may or may not choose to include in their mix. Activated Charcoal is one addition because of its ability to purify and neutralize any impurities which may get into the soil. For growers who are working with acid loving plants such as azaleas (pH of around 5.5) the inclusion of peat moss in a potting mixture is a good idea. Some azalea growers actually include the peat moss as the primary organic ingredient in the base mix. Better yet, the use of Kanuma and pumice 50/50 is ideal for azaleas. For plants that like alkaline soils, the addition of one or two handfuls of horticultural lime is a useful addition. Many growers like to add a couple of scoops of bone meal (a mild, organic fertilizer) to a base mix. As noted in the beginning, the right mixture for a working bonsai soil is largely a matter of personal preference, but remember when adding ingredients not to impair efficient drainage.
A Couple Of Tips
Moss – Decorative ground covers such a moss can add a great deal to a bonsai’s appearance. They can also be dangerous. Dry moss will actually shed water away from the plant. If you use moss on your bonsai make sure that the moss does not cover the entire surface of the pot and that you are always able to inspect the moisture condition of the soil. There is a Japanese rule which says moss may be permitted to touch only three sides of the container. If followed it means that you will always be able to inspect the condition of your soil easily.
Old Soils – Try to insure that as much of the old soil as possible is removed when transplanting. Incompatible soil mixtures can cause problems in maintaining adequate moisture levels and fool you into thinking the soil is completely saturated when it is not. The success of a good soil mix can be severely impaired if it is not uniform throughout the pot. If the old soil mass holds onto more moisture than the new soil mix it may remain too wet and a condition of root rot will set in. Likewise, if the center of the root ball is hard pack clay it may resist absorption of water and roots will not grow. Such problems are usually only encountered with plants collected in the wild. Trees that have been grown in a proper bonsai soil mixture for a number of years normally “release” most of their old soil particles upon transplant making the job of soil replacement much easier. This is another advantage of growing trees in a properly prepared bonsai mixture.
Protocol What follows is the recipe for the soil mixture used in a hot sunny garden in North Carolina. These ingredients in the ratios indicated make an excellent general purpose potting mixture. They are, by no means, the only mixture or combinations possible. You may wish to amend these ingredients or alter the ratios to suit your own specific growing conditions. Remember that the best general combinations of components will be 75 percent inert aggregate material and 25 percent organic material. Consider the climate and growing conditions in your own back yard and create a soil mixture which will fit you and your bonsai’s specific needs.
Standard Bonsai Mix – Components should be passed through two sets of screens to produce particles of about 1/4 to 1/8 inch in diameter. Eliminate dust.
Haydite – 1 part
Granite or River Rock – 1 part
Turface – 1 part
Pine Bark – 1 part
Shohin & Mame Bonsai Mix – Components should be passed through three sets of screens to produce particles of 1/8 inch to 1/16 inch. Eliminate dust.
Haydite – 2 parts
Turface – 1 part
Pine Bark – 1 part